Paul Coffey Talk: Penguins Meltdown Mega Roundtable
Five vaguely esteemed hockey writers and one enigmatic talk-radio personality discuss the Penguins’ future.
Photos by Dave DiCello
Evgeni Malkin is signed. Dan Bylsma is extended. Ray Shero is baiting haters. Kris Letang has one skate out the door. There’s so much to discuss. Too much, actually. So I’ve enlisted the help of some of the brightest humans around for some serious Hockey Talk. Call it Paul Coffey Talk.
Our starting lineup:
Rob Rossi, reporter for the Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, former flow-sporter and current Malkin biographer.
Chris Mueller, co-host of 93.7 The Fan’s afternoon program and person who tries to talk to you about the NBA at a party.
Brian Metzer, NHL.com contributing writer and part-time squire to “The Godfather” Bob Grove on the Penguins Radio Network (go get your shinebox, Metzer).
Derek Rocco, co-founder of the hilarious Pensblog and self-described “full-grown adult who owns his own home.”
Mike Colligan, NHL analyst at Forbes.com, The Hockey Writers super-genius and the person I copy all my tests from.
Jesse Marshall, co-owner of Faceoff-Factor.com and an advanced stats guru who can carry the one like nobody’s business.
Gentlemen, scholars: Let’s dig in to this euphoric-turned-bummer of a Penguins season, and please throw your beer cans in the trash bin when you leave.
Pressing question: Does Dan Bylsma have the capacity to grow as a strategist quickly enough to win more Stanley Cups in Crosby and Malkin's primes? I rate him very highly as a motivator, but frankly, his breakout and forecheck were dismantled by Claude Julien. Dismantled.
Rossi: Former players of Bylsma insisted in recent days that the problem is not Bylsma being stubborn or lacking a willingness to adjust. Rather, his system is often so complex — one player called it beautiful hockey that goes bad when one thing doesn’t work — that players with lesser hockey IQs cannot think fast enough to make it work against clubs that attack. That seemingly was the case against the Islanders in Round 1. Against the Bruins in Round 2, that wasn’t the problem. In fact, the problem, said Kris Letang on Locker Cleanout Day, was that the Bruins confounded the Penguins by not attacking.
Rocco: I just saw the words Kris Letang and complex together, and I instantly shook my head. I think the Penguins are banking on Bylsma growing as a coach and learning from his mistakes. Bylsma seems like a mega-genius. His system, as described, is very complex. Why hasn't it been altered to allow new players to pick it up more quickly?
Colligan: Many of the breakdowns I saw were a result of missed assignments by the defense. There was too much shuffling of defensive pairs and not only changing personnel but also having players move from right defense to left defense and vice versa. At playoff pace, you can't afford to think. You have to react. Pittsburgh's defensemen were thinking too much. Simplify, simplify, simplify.
Conboy: But here’s the thing — Crosby and Malkin have been under Bylsma’s system for years. Two of the best players in the world, totally invisible against the Bruins. Inexplicable! Mr. Marshall, hit me with some logic.
Marshall: From a strategic perspective, Boston's ability to run an effective 2-3 neutral zone trap clogged up the middle of the ice and made entry into the offensive zone as difficult as it gets. I think Dan Bylsma did a great job making subtle adjustments to both the lineup and the breakout to counteract that. In Games 3 and 4, those adjustments garnered a lot of scoring chances that the players simply weren't able to convert on. Think back to Tuukka Rask’s saves on Iginla and Malkin in Game 3’s overtime.
Conboy: Drunk old-man analysis: Adjustments or not, the Penguins never seemed to have the puck. Why?
Metzer: The wingers in this group do a lot of floating, which is the product of an offense that calls for so many stretch passes. The centers and defensemen are required to get back on puck retrievals, which is pretty much Hockey 101, but it all goes wrong when the entire forward group abandons the defensive zone as soon as a defenseman collects the puck. They simply need more forward support in the defensive zone, or they will be destined to repeat the mistakes.
Marshall: I think that if you look at the Boston series in a nutshell, strategy wasn't really the undoing of the Penguins. That being said, the Penguins offensive struggles in the face of a defense with a staunch, collapsing mindset hearkens back to the Montreal series in 2010. In both instances, the Penguins failed to get traffic to the net, lost the punch their power-play provided and became frustrated by a hot goaltender. I think the blueprint of how to beat them has been established, and the question of whether or not Bylsma can evolve to overcome this blueprint is going to end up being the story of this contract extension.
Rocco: I think the fact that Crosby and Malkin respect Bylsma so much shows he is a good coach. Great players need a coach who will let them be who they need to be.
Colligan: I actually thought the Penguins’ coaching staff outcoached and outmaneuvered Ottawa in the second round. Paul MacLean is a great tactician, and I fully expected him to give Bylsma a run for his money. That never happened. Of course, no one talks about that. They only focus on the sweep, which I don't think was nearly the lopsided affair that everyone thinks.
Rossi: Bylsma’s undoing against Boston was trusting Crosby, Malkin and Letang to play composed in the big moments of Games 1 and 2, and each failed in those big moments. I don’t put that on the coach. If Crosby and Malkin want to win the Cup again in their primes, they probably need to avoid flaming out as they have in the last three playoffs they’ve played. They have underachieved as much as the coach, if not more.
Conboy: Crosby looked … strange. Especially against Boston. It looked like someone had taken the gem out of his doughnut. The fire in his eyes was missing. The shove of Rask and trolling of Chara seemed half-hearted, no?
Rossi: Crosby was himself, but he is different post-concussion. Hockey remains his passion, but it has not seemed like his obsession for a while. He seems to be in a better place as a person. Heck, my relationship with him has been salvaged, and that probably doesn’t happen if the old, hyper-obsessive Crosby is still around. He sees life now, not just hockey. That has nothing to do with the locker-room culture. It’s just him growing and maybe gaining some perspective having had to live without hockey during the post-concussion syndrome.
Conboy: But what is this team supposed to be? I’m confused. What’s the identity? They got like six rebounds the entire Bruins series.
Rossi: Is this team incapable of playing lunch-pail hockey? No, but they aren’t built that way either. And that’s a conscious decision by management. It was a miscalculation, at least from what I can gather. Shero seems to think, now anyway, that there are rules for the regular season and the playoffs. He probably isn’t wrong.
Mueller: Beautiful hockey sells tickets (OK, not an issue for the Penguins) and merchandise (something you can never sell enough of). Other than that, who gives a damn? Play in a way that wins games. Rise above. Anyone watching the NBA Finals? Lebron James gets fouled every play. He perseveres. The fanbase here has largely shifted to whiny frustration when things don't go the team’s way. Deal with it.
Conboy: Return of the Garage League?
Rossi: Well, the concussion era has allowed the league to look away as obstruction returned. There are two different rule books in the NHL — one for the playoffs that nobody understands. Still, a club can win by playing the game with skill. See Chicago.
Rocco: Speaking of, remember our old friend Marian Hossa? Watch Hossa in Game 1 of the Cup finals. What did he do? He worked. The Penguins didn't work hard enough. But let’s not joke here. The Bruins were fantastic in their own zone. They were so locked in that I’m not sure the Penguins could have done anything else.
Mueller: Let’s be honest here, gentlemen. The Penguins are an offensive show pony, which is fun as hell for more casual fans to watch. They make the impossible look easy in the regular season. Sure, it’s “beautiful hockey,” but once the playoffs start and NHL referees consult each season’s new “playoff rulebook,” the Penguins are at something of a disadvantage. When the rough stuff is more permitted, the advantage shifts gradually to more defensive minded clubs. The Penguins too often tried to fight fire with fire and play “tough hockey.” I’ve seen it posited that the Maple Leafs gave the Bruins their bigger test so far because they tried to actually out-skate and out-skill them. I think that makes sense. The Pens got tougher at the deadline, but they also got slower and perhaps less dangerous.
Nice segway to another burning question: Why did Bylsma get so much of the blowback as Shero escaped from the wreckage unscathed? Was this team even constructed properly? Shero has been obsessed with getting tough since the Flyers meltdown, but why? The Penguins outhit the Bruins by a lot and they still got swept.
Mueller: I got swept up in it like everyone else, but holy crap did those trades suck. At least, the ones for Jarome Iginla and Brenden Morrow did. I don’t even care that Joe Morrow was lost in this carnage — that’s secondary. In an effort to get tougher, the Penguins got slower, they played Iginla out of position and Morrow, for all his grit, probably should have been a healthy scratch. The whole “In Shero We Trust” mantra is tired, given that it seemingly pivots around his 2009 deals, and utterly neglects bad moves like Alexei Ponikarovsky and, well, Brenden Morrow. He’s a very good GM, but he — and especially his scouts — should be on the hook for much of this.
Metzer: I had hoped that bringing in players such as Iginla and Morrow would bring that Bill Guerin vibe of accountability, but it didn't happen. What was dubbed as a collection of captains turned into a group of good old boys who were having a blast in a new environment with a whole lot less responsibility. Instead of stepping up and being the big bad guy, they seemed more like a big brother who lets you use his ID to buy beer.
Conboy: Yeah, both Iginla and Morrow seemed half-asleep. They overdid the good soldier routine. Yeah, we get it. It’s not your team. But don’t act like you’re just here to cut the crust off Sid’s pregame PB&J.
Rossi: I hated the Iginla trade before they made it, wrote that and was destroyed for it. The presence of Jordan Staal and Max Talbot is missed. The Penguins lack anybody willing to be the bad guy. Staal would, until his final season when he was not happy with his role. Talbot was not a bad guy so much as he was unafraid to tell any player to go [shove] himself. That is missing. That needs to return. Staal and Talbot also thrived when playoff games turned nasty. That is missing. That needs to return.
Conboy: I thought they brought in Morrow to be that hard ass. Then at the press conference, he’s getting semi-weepy about leaving his little girls in Dallas.
Rossi: Looking back, Shero was banking on Iginla and Morrow commanding a presence in the room. They resisted. They were playing for contracts, not the Cup. It was his great miscalculation, but who could see that coming? I suspect Shero knew those guys had little left in the tank. He wanted them to take over the room, and allow Crosby and Malkin to just play. That never happened. Iginla shrunk from that role; Morrow never found a groove.
Rocco: They didn't need Iginla. Especially if that meant knocking James Neal off his natural wing mid-season. If they didn't need Iginla, they really didn't need Morrow. I’m not going to lie — I talked myself into Morrow, but Lord, was that a mistake. I liked the Murray deal and still do. Two second-rounders? Name the last second-round draft pick that did anything for the Penguins. (I know the answer is Letang, and I am still not impressed.)
Conboy: Whoa. Shots fired.
Rocco: I don't include Letang anywhere near the stratosphere of Crosby and Malkin. Letang needs a haircut, not a better coach. We’re all in agreement here that Letang is not worth the $7 million per season he’s going to get on the market, right?
Metzer: As a guy who covers Fantasy Hockey for the NHL, I love him. He's a MANIMAL who will continue to pile up points. That said, I still don't think he is a capable power-play quarterback. He has trouble getting pucks to the goal and is indecisive at the point, especially under pressure. He has definite moments of greatness where it all comes together, but it doesn’t make fiscal sense to keep him. If I am paying a defenseman $7 or $8 million on this team, he has to be more of a Ryan Suter/Shea Weber type who can be among the best in the league in both ends of the ice. To stay, he’ll have to take $2 million less than open-market.
Rossi: Letang won’t take that kind of pay cut and he demands a no-movement clause. The Penguins think he’s on his way to becoming incomparable — but they can't keep him. It will be the most important trade of Shero’s tenure. He must reset the supporting cast, get a pick and a prospect.
Conboy: Winger for Sid!
Hey, this was a weird one. ESPN’s John Buccigross went on a Twitter rant this week, saying that the Penguins’ culture has turned from from grit-and-grime (Civic Arena) to wine-and-cheese (CONSOL). Anything to that?
Rocco: Buccigross is out of touch. The Civic Arena was a country club at one point. With apologies to Rossi, the locker-room vibe is overrated. No one is ever, ever in the room. So it is all calculated observation.
Rossi: True. The idea that we reporters who are in the room have any idea what the players’ vibe is remains a lie we tell ourselves. Nobody is around more than me, and the thing I’ve tried to get away from over the years is reading into a player’s “look.” It never meshes with how they play. Never.
Metzer: CONSOL has brought a bit of a cushier vibe, but I don't think that has changed the mentality of the team. If that happened, it probably comes from having a group of extremely skilled players who can win on talent alone most evenings. That isn't a knock on the skill guys so much as an indictment of letting guys like Rob Scuderi, Max Talbot and, heck, even Mike Rupp go without finding suitable replacements. Technically, yesterday’s Max Talbot is today's Tanner Glass. That just doesn't cut it.
Rossi: There is no laid-back culture. They work too hard for in my eyes. They practice too much. They meet too much. There is too much preparation. Speaking with a higher-up Wednesday, I posed the thought that perhaps these players needed to have more fun — that their innocence, an advantage in 2008 and 2009, was gone, and something else had to replace it. He agreed.
Conboy: Now that’s interesting. Because it wasn’t the scoreline of Game 2 against the Bruins that was so shocking — it was the abysmal effort. There was zero joy. Zero urgency. I talked to a former Penguins player who said that was one of the flattest performances he’s ever seen in the NHL playoffs.
Rossi: They were in shock against the Bruins. They scored two goals. That shocked everybody. I have yet to cover a club that is going down, and knows it, that isn’t in somewhat of a state of shock. Teams that win — and this squad had 11 players who won together — know pretty quickly if winning isn’t possible. The Penguins knew after Game 2 they weren’t going to beat the Bruins. The fact that they showed up in Boston is actually something that surprised me. It shows me that maybe, more than anything, this nucleus is going through the process of learning how to win again.
Speaking of winning, can you win a Stanley Cup with James Neal? Look, I think Neal is an elite goal-scorer. He would be a terrific fit as the go-to scorer on 25-plus NHL teams. But the Penguins’ problem isn’t scoring. Neal looks lost in his own zone at times. That’s a highly moveable deal. Teams would give valuable assets for Neal (look at the franchise-changing haul Boston got for Phil Kessel).
Marshall: While Neal may have been a minus-three in the playoffs, he led the Penguins in a very important statistical category in the playoffs: Corsi. Corsi is on-ice shot differential (goals + saves + missed shots + blocks) expressed at a rate per 60 minutes. James Neal had an on-ice Corsi of 17.79 in post-season. That's a team high, and a testament to how much of a presence he was in the offensive zone. I think his chemistry with Evgeni Malkin and presence on the power-play makes him a huge catalyst in this team’s ability to win a Stanley Cup.
Rossi: For me, Neal simply wasn’t the same player after the concussion.
Metzer: When things are working for him, he's great. But when he is faced with a bit of adversity, he broods. His body language can be negative, and he spends time taking penalties, sniping at teammates and pretty much hitting the showers mentally during the third period. He is still a steal in terms of being a 40-goal man. But if he can't mature, I'm not sure I would let him finish the term.
Conboy: What about Brandon Sutter? He is an enigma to me. Can you win a Cup with him as your third-line center?
Marshall: You'd be hard-pressed to find a shutdown center in this year’s playoffs with defensive numbers that match Sutter’s. His goals against per 60 minutes of even strength ice time was 1.16, a number that makes him the class of third-line centers in the postseason. Sutter faced the best the other team had to offer on a nightly basis and did an admirable job of making opponents disappear at even strength. The downside to Sutter's performance is that his number of goals for per 60 minutes of even strength ice time was also 1.16. More appearances on the scoresheet is never a bad thing.
Rossi: I don’t know how to view either Neal or Sutter based off of this postseason, as both players were often saddled with Iginla and Morrow — guys who never brought it on or off the ice. I’ll say this, though: The idea that this team is built to win 2-1 games; I never bought that anybody in the room actually believed that. It was a nice thought, but the team was built to win 4-2 games. There is a big difference.
Speaking of being able to win 2-1 games: Marc-Andre Fleury. Bylsma and Shero say he’s their guy next season. Marketing ploy or Real Talk?
Metzer: I just think that he needs a sports psychologist at this point. But the message of support at the press conferences shouldn’t have even been news. If you are keeping Fleury, you had to do it. If you are moving him, you also had to do it. We know Shero is a capable negotiator. Just look at the Staal deal.
Conboy: So what’s wrong with Fleury? Is it the grind on his body of seven years as a starter in that butterfly style, or is it mental?
Rossi: It’s mental. It’s all mental. Cannot stress that enough. Fleury is actually stronger, more flexible now than before. He’s changed his physical training the last few years. He is as quick as he’s ever been. The really weird part is that when’s he on, he’s technically more sound than ever. When he’s off … Look, he has melted down, and he doesn’t do enough to get himself out of those bad, dark places he goes to — and he goes there so quickly once the calendar turns to April. It wouldn’t surprise me if he sought a sports psychologist for help. Tons of athletes do it. At some point, he either gets his confidence back or they cut bait.
Colligan: I've felt for over a year that Fleury wasn't in the Penguins’ long-term plans. With the way the Penguins play, do they need a goalie capable of making spectacular saves or a goalie capable of consistency? I'd argue the latter, and I think Tomas Vokoun proved that. You don't need to spend big money on goaltenders anymore.
Rossi: But nobody can trade a goalie right now. Especially not a goalie seen as somewhat damaged. Look at the lack of trades involving goalies with above $4 million cap hits. It doesn’t happen. The sad reality for the Penguins — Crosby, Malkin, Shero and Bylsma — is this: If Fleury isn’t the guy, their options are nonexistent for next season. After that, sure; but for next year, because of the salary cap, he has to be the guy.
Rocco: I'll just float this out there … is there an issue between Fleury and Bylsma? Maybe Bylsma holds him accountable for the last couple years? Either way, Fleury looks lost. Mental or not, someone needs to fix it.
Conboy: Fleury is close with a lot of players on the team, including Crosby. Literally every single Penguins player was invited to his wedding. I often wonder if the added pressure of letting down his close friends gets to him mentally. I interviewed him in March, and he’s a hell of a nice guy. Polar opposite of the goalie stereotype. But maybe there’s a reason why most goalies are such reclusive nutjobs. It’s easier to play tender without a heart, I think.
Marshall: Maybe next season he can learn from Vokoun in that regard.
Conboy: Indeed. Hey, brilliant insight, guys. Let’s do some quick hits. Fill in these blanks for me.
Most underrated Penguins player this season.
Rossi: Tomas Vokoun, and it’s not close. I knew he could play. I never would have guessed a backup goalie new to this group would become its emotional rock. I really believe his intermission wake-up rant in Philadelphia saved the season. He is the one guy from the outside who had clout and/or the willingness to speak up.
Mueller: Beau Bennett, specifically his willingness to mix it up physically. It was also fun to watch Bylsma label him a top six forward for next season, as if something drastic had changed within three days of the Bruins series ending.
Marshall: Paul Martin, no two ways about it. We finally saw the Paul Martin that Ray Shero envisioned when he signed him as a free agent a few years ago. Martin's goals against per 60 minutes of even strength ice time was a strong 1.83, and he statistically lead the NHL postseason in that category prior to the Boston series.
Metzer: Yep, Paul Martin. The guy was the whipping boy of fans and media last season, even being openly mocked by Ray Ferraro, which was captured by a mic that he didn't realize was live. I respect Martin for having the guts to stay in a situation that could have gone completely upside-down for him. He was a robust plus-15 while skating alongside Brooks Orpik as part of the team’s top shutdown tandem in the regular season. Let's not forget that he also added 11 points in 15 postseason games while carrying a plus-five rating. Great reclamation story for a great guy.
Colligan: Pascal Dupuis. Heart of the team.
Rossi: Evgeni Malkin. And it should be clear that I do not enjoy taking this stance. He is no worse than the second most-gifted player on the planet (other than Pavel Datsyuk). He is a true dominating force. But he is better than nine goals in the regular season, even if he did miss one-third of the games and had a nagging shoulder injury in others.
Mueller: Sidney Crosby. He should be measured by how far this team goes in the playoffs, and if they don’t win the Cup, how they bow out. Period.
Marshall: Matt Niskanen. A lot of people in Dallas felt that Niskanen's departure was addition by subtraction. He came to Pittsburgh, turned his game around, played very well in the disaster that was the Flyers series in 2012, but struggled a bit this year when it mattered most. Niskanen needs to find his niche in this team. He's not a young player anymore.
Metzer: Tanner Glass. I didn’t expect a lot from the signing, but I expected a lot more than the Penguins got. The guy put up 16 points [five goals] with the Winnipeg Jets one year ago, so it was safe to assume that he would contribute a bit with the highly skilled Penguins. That never happened. He did do a decent job killing penalties, which was a big reason why he stayed in the lineup all season long, but that isn't enough.
Colligan: Agree. Tanner Glass.
Shero should go after this free agent in the offseason.
Rossi: God, the FA class is mostly wretched. I would not chase anybody. Instead, I’d try to prevent Dupuis from hitting the market. Also, because it’s time to realize he can teach The Mega Powers something: #JagrWatch.
Mueller: Oh man, I second Jagr. Hell, give him the “C.” Also, Rob Scuderi, for obvious reasons.
Rocco: LOL. Scuderi! Come on, Mueller. You spend too much time with Colin Dunlap.
Mueller: You say that like it’s a bad thing.
Marshall: Viktor Stalberg would look great next to Sutter on the third line. Might even be a cheap, viable option for a spot with Malkin on the second line.
Metzer: Boyd Gordon. Gordon ranked in the top 10 in faceoff-winning percentage, winning 57.3 percent of his draws; he also posted 14 points [four goals] for the Coyotes. He is just 29 years old and could be a great addition for the third/fourth line if they could lure him away from the desert. An offer in the three-year, $4.9 million range could be enough to get it done, which would bring a cap hit of just $1.63 per for a guy you could count on to win a ton of faceoffs and kill penalties.
Colligan: David Clarkson. He'll never have the cap space to do it though.
In two years, Marc-Andre Fleury will be …
Rossi: Talking to a lot of teams who will be lining up to pay him big money. The Penguins will not be among those teams.
Marshall: The starting goaltender for the Pittsburgh Penguins. Too much talent and pedigree for me to write him off. This will be the defining year of his career.
Metzer: Playing goal for the Edmonton Oilers or Colorado Avalanche. Just kidding. I actually think that they find a way to fix him. A guy who can be so great in the regular season should be able to translate that success to the postseason. It’s is the team's job to figure out how to do that.
Colligan: Answering questions in a Florida Panthers uniform about whether he's over his mental hurdles in the playoffs.
Mueller: Anyone that answers this with conviction is either lying or a benevolent intelligent life form from another planet.
Conboy: Yikes. I think I heard the horn sound. Good hockey talk, fellas.